With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is up.
Even with the clunky, awkward, franchise-mandated title, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was probably the best blockbuster of 2014. Guardians of the Galaxy was more fun, but that was pure escapism. Dawn, on the other hand, managed to provide some of the year’s most breathtaking spectacle while also having a great deal to say about the state of the world we’re in. Suffice it to say, one of the smartest, most politically astute science fiction films of the year was the one where the premise essentially amounted to “talking monkeys”.
The release of Dawn was perfectly timed to highlight how relevant the points it discusses are to the current political landscape
Its release date was, completely by coincidence, perfectly timed to highlight how relevant some of the points it discusses are to the current political landscape. With the escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict that occurred this summer, Dawn was in a perfect position to comment on it and all those like it. The war between humans and apes in the film is, more or less, inevitable: despite great leaders and the best intentions on both sides, there is often little that can be done to prevent such a clash of civilisations.
The fact that neither humans nor apes can be said to be ‘in the right’ is an especially pointed comment on modern war. While we automatically side with the apes given that Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the protagonist, it’s largely because of his tribe, through Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) actions, that the war occurs. The humans are by no means innocent, stockpiling huge numbers of guns in case the apes turn out to be a threat, but they’re still not the ones who initiate the conflict. But while Koba is consumed by irrational hatred for people who pose no threat to him, the audience can very easily sympathise with his position because of everything he went through as a test subject. No one is simply good or bad, and even the film’s de facto villain is extremely sympathetic – and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Toby Kebbell gives a powerhouse of a performance.
While Koba’s motivations are understandable, however, it’s impossible to defend his actions, and it is in them where Dawn offers perhaps its least subtle but most potent commentary on modern politics, specifically regarding American foreign policy and its recent wars in the Middle East. Koba as a leader is distrustful even of those on his own side, perceives threat where there is none, and is willing to go to war over his suspicions. He attacks the humans in a pre-emptive strike to prevent them from attacking the apes, even though no conflict would have happened if they had just left each other alone. And then, in one of the film’s most striking images, he stands above his army of apes on a flagpole from which flies the Stars and Stripes. Subtle? No. Powerful? Absolutely.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, through and through, a discussion of the political state of modern America
With the rise of Islamic State this year, the idea of an enemy which didn’t actually exist and was created by the very act which was supposed to destroy it is a particularly noteworthy one. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, through and through, a discussion of the political state of modern America, and while much of it is devoted to commentary on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s still plenty of time for it to talk about America’s issues at home.
It’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster in which practically everything bad that happens does so because people possessed guns when they should not have. If neither apes nor humans owned or used guns, then it’s possible and likely that they could have achieved a peaceful resolution, but the presence of guns automatically breeds distrust for each ‘tribe’ and an inclination towards violence as a solution to their disagreements. Caesar’s fury when he discovers that a human has brought a shotgun into his territory, and that it was only feet away from his newborn son, can’t help but be seen as a reaction to the number of young Americans who have easy access to firearms – and all the disasters that have happened as a result of that.
And, in addition to all this, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes still contains scenes in which superintelligent apes ride horses while firing machine guns one-handed. It’s another breakthrough in the field of performance capture, representing the first time an actor who was not physically present in the finished film received top billing. It’s a thrilling effects-driven blockbuster as well as a genuinely intelligent science fiction film, and because of that was one of the most satisfying films released not just this summer, but all year.
Against all expectations, Planet of the Apes is now the benchmark for how to revitalise an iconic but ailing sci-fi franchise
Against all expectations, Planet of the Apes is now the benchmark for how to revitalise an iconic but ailing sci-fi franchise. JJ Abrams’s Star Trek reboot was entertaining but shallow, and Tim Burton’s 2001 attempt to bring back the Apes series ended in catastrophe. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a very pleasant surprise, and now that it’s had a sequel which actually managed to improve on it, we can safely say that Planet of the Apes is back and better than it’s been in decades.
Dawn has pretty much everything that we could realistically hope for from a big budget summer blockbuster, and all this from a premise which is, in all honesty, more than a little silly. If the resurrection of that other great but struggling sci-fi series, Star Wars, turns out to be even nearly as good as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we’ll have a lot to be happy about. Or, as Caesar would say: Apes. Movie. Good.
All images: 20th Century Fox